Photographs have been almost exclusively black and white throughout the history of the medium. Early experimental color methods were crude and agonizingly complicated. More practical commercial color films and papers were eventually developed in the mid-twentieth century, but it was not until consider-ably later that color photography slowly became artistically respectable.
When a film photographer, I devoted all my efforts to black and white imagery. This was partly by necessity as even the commercial color film and print processes were complex, unforgiving, and expensive. This necessity, however, was also a virtue which informed my sensibility as it had that of almost all other art photographers for whom black and white was the default preference for a representation which has only one color dimension. Such an image is more abstract and further removed from the recorded transitory reality it depicts than is a color photograph. The purpose of abstraction is clear representation of the essential. The austere one dimensionality of the black and white photograph is conducive to such clarity. Its exclusive choice by many photographers is consistent with a historical suspicion of the artistic use of color as a pleasing but superfluous and distracting indulgence of the senses.
With the invention and continuous development of digital imaging, color photo-graphy has become mechanically easy. Its technological possibility has invited color’s default adoption by many photographers who have become less puritanical than their film forebears. Respect for the sober truth of the - now somewhat retro - black and white image has been balanced if not surpassed by desire for the sensory vitality and emotional expression of color. Whatever the gravitas of the black and white photograph, there is no denying the pleasure and feeling afforded by color. It attracts.
While I too have come to enjoy color, I do not uncritically value it. Where necessity was a convenient virtue for film photographers, convenient possibility can become for digital artists the vice of perfunctory acceptance of whatever color happens to be there, no matter how bland, or exaggerated color for its own sake at the expense of design and significant content. So, out of continuing appreciation of black and white and careful reservation about color, the former remains my default choice superseded when an image is to a significant degree, but not exclusively, ABOUT color and not an image that just happens to be chromatic because the recorded subject almost inevitably was. Such an image can, without apology, occasion enjoyment and command respect.
© David Bartlett/Silver and Ink